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Multicultural Initiatives, Strategic Office
Library and Archives Canada
The pluralistic South Asian community in Canada, often termed the Indo-Canadian or East Indian community, is composed of individuals from a wide variety of ethnic, linguistic and religious backgrounds, with ties to countries such as India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Described as one of the most diverse communities in Canada, the South Asian community in Surrey might more aptly be regarded as a number of heterogeneous communities rather than a comprehensive whole. It is from this perspective that discussion follows below.
Within the South Asian community in the Vancouver area, libraries are seen as important tools that facilitate access to information. Guests estimated that 80%-90% of community members are aware of libraries and the roles that they play, though this awareness was said to depend to some degree on individual educational attainment. Within many South Asian countries, libraries are familiar entities. For this reason, newcomers from this region often become immediate users of libraries in Canada.
Guests stressed that when new immigrants arrive to Canada, the number one priority is integration. In this case, English language library materials are often preferred to those in a first language. In many cases, English is not a barrier for South Asian newcomers. Immigrants who are more advanced in years may not be as familiar with libraries as younger generations and may require more first language support. Many challenges face senior populations who lack formal education and rely heavily on their families for support. Guests noted that libraries must strive to reach across the generations by offering materials in multiple languages (e.g. English and Punjabi).
Participants underscored that the histories of South Asian immigrants are not referred to in schools or reflected in school libraries. Many perceive collections to be inadequate in cases where the history reflected is not their own.
While the value of archives appears to be understood by many within the South Asian community, at present, there is a lack of systematic effort (from within or beyond the community) when it comes to collecting pertinent archival materials. To date, the relevance of formal archives has not been demonstrated to the community from a community perspective. Municipal archives were seen to hold little of interest for this community. Recent immigrants tend to be less familiar with the purpose and scope of archives. Guests noted that an educational campaign is required to make the purpose of archives clear to a broader audience.
Where South Asian archival materials are highlighted, the focus is often one-dimensional and limited to events and/or the hardships experienced by the community. Still, community members expressed their desire to contribute and share in a more formal way where archives are concerned. Participants said that a core archival collection, once initiated, will grow and develop a life of its own. Writers, historians and the media were seen as integral contributors to this process.
Support for a regional approach to development was encouraged by participants. Guests forwarded the opinion that archival collections must be supported locally with an Indo-Canadian task force to care for collections within the community. At the local level, the community is willing and able to raise awareness in this regard; the support of national partners is desired to complement this work. Guests suggested that a neutral, external organizing body is required to initiate coordination in this regard, given internal hostilities and competition that can polarize the community. Any such developments must respect divisions within the community (particularly as they pertain to spirituality), a potential hurdle where partnerships and access are concerned. That said, participants felt that disparate elements of the community might be brought together to achieve particular goals; opportunities for collaboration would be welcomed given the right approach. It was noted that many South Asian organizations already work well together and that the media is an active and unifying component of community life.
The community was described as a generous one, said to possess a great deal of "people power," particularly in the form of retirees and others willing to give their time to volunteer. Guests expressed pride in their history and said that community members are eager to share their stories with others.
Participants suggested that a sustained effort is needed to carry forward a passion for both collections and access. Guests noted that in their countries of origin, religious scriptures have been successfully preserved, a fact that demonstrates that where there is need and ability, communities will rally behind such efforts.
While a neutral force may be required to initiate this work in the Canadian context, community members representing diverse groups wish to guide development by way of an advisory board or non-profit entity created for this purpose; only then will participation be attractive to a wider audience. Trust and relationship building are essential to this process.
Guests said that few community members are aware of Library and Archives Canada. There was some understanding of collaboration between LAC and the Shastri Indo- Canadian Institute (based in Calgary, Alberta), an organization that promotes mutual awareness and understanding between India and Canada, primarily by facilitating academic activities.10
Library and Archives Canada is regarded as a potential facilitator where the coordination of community archives is concerned. LAC assistance is desired to support broad access, particularly by way of digital initiatives, and to identify and establish national networks. LAC was also viewed as a potential source for publisher and legal deposit information.